NOAA National Data Centers,

How to Choose a GIS? A Prototype Generalized Methodology

(An unofficial personal view by David Hastings, from his book Geographic Information Systems: A Tool for Geoscience Data Analysis and Interpretation)

1. Introduction

In my travels with GIS, I see many managers thinking that they may need this new technology, but don't know where to turn for advice. The most available people are vendors of GIS software, but we all know what happens from listening only to sales people. Unfortunately, our peers may be well versed only in the systems that they themselves use; so they aren't necessarily much help either - unless we ourselves are capable of evaluating their standpoint vis a vis our own.

2. Getting a system that does what you need

As in other rapidly evolving fields, there is confusion about GIS on several fronts:

Partly because of

there are some salespeople and consultants who will help "guide" you to their favorite system, whether or not it is appropriate for you.

So the question becomes: "How to avoid buying an expensive non-solution for your needs?"

3. What is a basic definition of the term GIS?

Click here for the definitions that appear elsewhere on these pages.

4. What do you want from your GIS? How do you determine your needs?

If you are an environmental scientist, your needs are more complex than can be satisfied by the stereotypical urban planner's system. The latter's system is often designed to produce beautiful line plots to meet certain specifications, rather than to help with scientific analysis. You may wind up with a system that can give you a map of power lines in a county, but you can't model the environmental impact of a new spur to one of those power lines, or you cannot model the effect of a future El Niño on the need for food aid in the Sahel.

In practice, it is useful to talk with salespeople. They are a ready source of information, despite their obvious bias toward their own system. Likewise with GIS specialists. In the end, however, there is nothing like one's own knowledge. Textbooks, special conference volumes, technical meetings, journals are all available. Then get your hands dirty on some systems. Not just keyboard access at a commercial exhibit at a professional meeting, but formal training and simulation of your working environment. You wouldn't expect any less than this in other fields (like buying a car); you can't expect to become conversant in GIS any easier.

If you want to get your hands dirty in an easier fashion, get a copy of an educational GIS package. There are several of these. Some are very simple, with few "bells and whistles" but a good cross-section of basic GIS functions, accompanied by a training manual and sample exercises. Others may be more substantial, allowing you to actually do research and environmental monitoring while you train yourself in GIS technology.

After spending some time learning about GIS, you will be better able to evaluate your needs than if you just accept salespeople and consultants as your gurus.

After such self-education, and a chance to reflect, you may discover that many GISs are inappropriate for your needs.

5. How to acquire "the best GIS for you?"

GIS software systems, hardware environments that support such systems, and services such as data base development, systems integration, consulting, and special-purpose publishers are proliferating faster than one can keep track of them. Likewise, systems and vendors are disappearing or repositioning themselves at an unnerving pace. In the middle of all this entropy is real and exciting progress in computer systems and GIS capabilities - if we can only sort the real progress from the vaporware.

No list of recommendations can be complete and current. Indeed, as vaporware vs. real systems may be relative to one's intended applications, it is impossible to make recommendations based on speculation or generalizations. In other words, one person's apparent vaporware may be another person's optimal system.

The best way to learn about available/appropriate systems is to dive in with both feet, with the help of expert friends, professional society journals and meetings, etc. ==> and to become an expert yourself. One viable alternative is to hire a trustworthy consultant. But how to find such a consultant? The same way that you find a good dentist (after getting several imperfect "drillings" from unsuccessful candidates), car mechanic, or lawyer! (If you go the consultant route, assume that consultant will be familiar with - and have commercial ties to - only a few of the more popular GISs, rather than the GIS with the best features for you.)

This may help you start the process:

In the end, the low-cost or public domain, user-friendly system may prove adequate for your needs. Or its shortcomings may be no greater than those of the competition.

Does this sound like a lot of work? You bet! There are few short cuts. Thus, many people acquire systems without truly understanding the options. If you do the same because you don't "have the time" to adequately investigate the alternatives, you may have plenty of company to share stories with!

Go to the CyberInstitute Short Course on GIS.

For information about this document please contact:

David Hastings
World Data Center-A, National Geophysical Data Center
303-497-6729 or
(Please remember that, this person cannot give specific recommendations on GIS products. By providing general ideas for selecting a system, we hope to support the entire GIS industry with happy customers.)

Last Modified on: Thursday, 28-May-1998 12:38:25 MDT